With a compact video camera in hand, a federal prison official toured part of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station on Thursday to begin exploring whether some buildings can be turned into a low-security federal correctional facility.
From the pine-cleanser-scrubbed mess hall to the barracks that house more than 1,000 enlisted Marines, Kevin McMahon, a senior site specialist for the prison system, made an inventory of equipment and noted the condition of the buildings during what he described as a preliminary "evaluation--to see what's available."
The Bureau of Prisons is the first outside agency to officially inspect El Toro's facilities since the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission ratified the Defense Department's decision to transfer the Marine Corps units stationed there, making the base available for conversion to non-military use sometime before 1999.
Federal agencies expressing an interest in military bases slated for closure are given first consideration before agencies serving the homeless, as well as state and local governments and private interests, are invited to submit proposals for all or part of the bases being abandoned.
If neighboring communities are willing, the Bureau of Prisons estimates it could operate a prison somewhere on the 4,700-acre base that would create anywhere from 250 to more than 800 jobs with annual salaries averaging $32,000.
McMahon said his initial impression of El Toro is that some of its housing and related facilities could be used for a low-security facility for approximately 1,600 inmates classified as nonviolent--generally drug offenders. A fence would enclose the site.
As he walked through a base mess hall that serves about 4,000 people daily, McMahon posed questions about the condition of the facility, including the age of the air-conditioning system and food-preparation equipment.
He also inspected a range of base housing--from 1950s-era barracks that stand empty and were scheduled for renovation before the base closure decision was made to a recently built dormitory that the Marines have nicknamed "the Castle."
The older barracks were showing signs of disrepair after being vacant for about two years. Windows are broken, the drapes are torn or dirty, and the cement floors have puddles of water. Still, McMahon pronounced the dormitories in "relatively good condition and quite well maintained."
"The age of the oldest goes back to the 1950s; it is still a relatively good structure," he said. "Where they are shut down for long periods of time, it's difficult to get back in and do anything. The systems break down and they become difficult to use."
Since this was the first evaluation of the property, McMahon said it was still too early to say whether the bureau would be submitting a proposal.
"From the standpoint of being able to reuse government property, it certainly makes sense for us to be looking, to try to use taxpayers' money wisely if it's possible," McMahon said.
Pete Ciesla, the base closure coordinator for El Toro, said current policy calls for the Defense Department to seek fair market value in disposing of the property, but the Office of Management and Budget can waive that requirement.
McMahon said the prison system wants to "acquire properties that are at no cost to the government and to reuse properties that don't require transfer of financial agreements. . . . We have been able to do that in all of our other locations, especially in acquiring military property."
Of the 72 federal prison sites nationwide, 22 are on active or deactivated bases, including four in California. The prison system recently received title to 860 acres at George Air Force Base in Riverside County where it plans the construction of at least two more facilities, and it expects to win approval for partial use of Castle Air Force Base in the San Joaquin Valley.
"We are experiencing some growth in our inmate population," McMahon said. "In order to keep pace with that, particularly in the California area, most of our efforts will be out in our Washington region, and in California."